[Starting Points] Aristotle on the Greatest Human Good

Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

This one surprising question by Aristotle can change your life

Good philosophy makes for bad clickbait. Clickbait promises to give you the answers in easily digestible form. Philosophy, when it yields answers at all, gets there by way of painstaking and sometimes dull argument.

When people first turn to philosophy, they often start by looking for the answers. They want a digest version of “what the great philosophers thought”: a list of theories and isms they can grasp easily. But what makes these philosophers great isn’t so much the conclusions they reached as the way they argued for them.

Aristotle is a powerful case in point. It’s hard to explain Aristotle’s greatness by listing off famous claims he made. You really need to look at how he argued.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Many of my students find Aristotle off-putting. His dry style is a disappointment if you’ve discovered the joys of reading Plato. His dogmatic-sounding pronouncements can rub members of a liberal society the wrong way. And he’s at best untroubled by a social structure that accepts slavery and subordinates women.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does make some interesting claims. He says that virtue is something we learn by doing and that it consists in a mean between two extremes. He argues that a good human life should be understood in terms of characteristically human activities, which he associates with our capacity to reason. He says the best life is one in which contemplation is dominant. And he says many other things besides.

But set all that aside. Instead of asking what he thinks is the best way to live, consider how he encourages us to think about it. It really can change your life.

Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Aristotle distinguishes between things we value for their own sake and things we value for the sake of something else. Call the first kind intrinsically valuable and the second instrumentally valuable (these aren’t Aristotle’s terms but they’re common in contemporary philosophy). 

Instrumental value: means to an end

Taking the bus to work is an instrumentally valuable activity. There’s nothing about being on the bus that appeals to me in its own right. The bus is merely a means to an end. If I could get to work some more efficient way—if I could teleport there with the snap of a finger—I’d do it.

For that matter, working is for the most part instrumentally valuable. Occasionally you’ll meet someone who’s so in love with her job that she says she’d do it even if no one paid her. But for most of us, work is also a means to an end. We need the money and that’s why we work.

 Money, too, is instrumentally valuable. Unless you’re Scrooge McDuck and enjoy splashing around in a pool full of gold coins, you don’t find money valuable in itself. What’s valuable about money is that you can spend it on things.

Most of us don’t think money is intrinsically valuable

Intrinsic value: ends in themselves

Most of the things we spend money on are also instrumentally valuable—groceries, rent, taking the bus to work. But surely not everything can have merely instrumental value. Aristotle makes this point early in the Nicomachean Ethics. If I do x only for the sake of y and I do y only for the sake of z and so on, we end up with an infinite regress. So why bother do x in the first place? For instrumentally valuable things to have value at all, that value must bottom out in something that’s valuable for its own sake. Something intrinsically valuable.

Let me give you an example. When I lived in New York, I made frequent visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking at art had various benefits for me: I felt calmer afterward, happier, and more alive to the world. But I didn’t look at the art for the sake of those psychological effects. Suppose you told me I could snap my fingers and immediately feel calm, happy, and alive to the world without going to the Met. I’d still want to go look at art. Looking at art wasn’t simply a means to an end for me. It had intrinsic value. 

Noble Professions Aren’t the Answer

Things that have instrumental value things are valuable only because they’re means to some other end that has intrinsic value. The best life, according to Aristotle, is dominated by activities that have intrinsic value.

What sort of life is the best one, then? In class, I ask students to give examples of lives well lived. They often list “noble” professions: aid workers, advocates for human rights and social justice, doctors, firefighters, and so on.

These professions are indeed noble but they can’t be the best mode of life by Aristotle’s lights for a very simple reason. Their value is instrumental.

Take the case of a human rights advocate. Imagine someone, call her Jane, struggling again immense odds and at considerable personal risk to give marginalized people a shot at a better life. Jane is acting bravely and admirably and neither Aristotle nor I would want to denigrate her work. But what is Jane hoping to accomplish? In the best outcome, she creates an opening for many people to live out better and more fulfilling lives. Terrific. And what are those better and more fulfilling lives? Answering that question returns us to Aristotle’s question about intrinsic value.

We call noble professions “noble” precisely because of their instrumental value. They often involve considerable self-sacrifice for the sake of some higher good. But for that very reason, they can’t themselves be expressions of the best human life. They’re rather sacrifices made in service of that best human life.

Putting the End Goal in View

Noble professions work toward their own extinction. An aid worker works to bring about a world in which no one is in need of aid. A human rights advocate works to bring about a world in which everyone’s rights are respected. These people work for a world in which their work is no longer needed.

I said earlier that I’d gladly teleport to work with the snap of a finger rather than take the bus if I could. I imagine Jane the human rights advocate would say something similar. She doesn’t value the struggle for human rights in itself. If she could snap her fingers and bring justice to all, she would do it eagerly.

Utopian thinking

In effect, Aristotle invites us to imagine a world transformed by such finger snapping. Suppose you could remove all the obstacles to a free and happy life: what would you do then? This is the question Aristotle wants to focus us on.

This question might seem almost offensively idle. The world is so full of problems that require our pressing attention: what use is there in imagining them away? Aristotle isn’t asking us to set aside those problems. If anything, he’s sharpening our understanding of them. We can get so lost in the struggle sometimes that we lose sight of what the struggle is for. Aristotle wants us to lift our heads and put the end goal in view.

A positive vision of the good life

Our vision of the good life is more often negative than positive. That is, we imagine a life where various problems—personal, political, environmental—are removed. Aristotle invites us to conceive a positive vision of the good life. He challenges us to explain what makes the removal of those problems seem worthwhile. 

So what would you do if only you could? Seriously, think about how you’d answer that question. It might change your life.

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